Romantic comedies and pop culture may sometimes paint love as a frivolous experience that’s distracting at best and disastrous at worst, but relationship and mental health experts know that’s far from the truth. In fact, experiencing love has the power to improve our health and well-being. Read on for a rundown on the health benefits of love, plus tips for cultivating more love in your own life.
How Do You Define Love?
For most, love is like gravity—something you recognize when you feel it but find hard to describe. As such, the definition of love varies based on who’s doing the defining, says relationship expert Nikki Goldstein. “Because the term is hard to pin down, it’s useful to come up with your own definition, as well as to ask others what theirs is.”
“Love is a verb and action, rather than a noun,” adds dating and happiness expert Ashley Pfeiffer, founder of Enjoy Dating Again.
For now, let’s define it as bell hooks does in her 2001 book, All About Love: New Visions, in which she says that love is a mix of ingredients: care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.
And we’d personally like to add that love is an action accessible to anyone willing to choose it. People of all sexual orientations and relationship structures have the right and capacity to experience love for others, as well as love for themselves.
The Importance of Self-Love
Culturally, love is usually seen as something cultivated between two individuals. However, love is something that can—and should—be cultivated within the self, according to spirituality expert Craig Grassi, founder of the life coaching platform Essence & Spark.
“Self-love is not defined just as treating yourself to nice meals or a ‘me day’ at the spa,” says Grassi. Instead, self-love is the term given to the ongoing practice of treating yourself with emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual care.
“Self-love can be the practice of creating boundaries to prevent others from taking more from us,” Grassi explains. It can also be the practice of taming the negative voices in our heads through anything from exercise and meditation to therapy and journaling. All pretty powerful stuff.
The Health Benefits of Love
And now, the power of love, which can’t be overstated. For starters, the experience of love releases high levels of the feel-good hormone, dopamine, says relationship coach and clinical psychologist Dr. Wyatt Fisher, Ph.D. Strongly associated with reward and pleasure, dopamine functions as an antidepressant and anxiety-reliever, helping to support mental well-being and positive mood, he explains. It’s also linked to the release of other feel-good hormones oxytocin and vasopressin.
“Loving and being loved back also creates a sense of attachment and security,” Fisher continues. “This feeling of attachment to another person often decreases overall stress because it helps us feel safe.” When our overall stress decreases, so do our levels of the stress hormone cortisol, too. Research has linked sustained low cortisol levels with a plethora of health benefits, including stable blood sugar, a healthier metabolism, decreased inflammation, and improved memory, according to the Hormone Health Network.
Although much of the current research on love centers on marriage, it’s safe to reason that the health benefits associated with happy marriage can be assumed for all loving relationships. Married or not, “romantic, sexual, and intimate love are all healthy and highly rewarding to the brain,” says Fisher.
One great example: an iconic American Journal of Epidemiology study, which suggests a relationship between strong social ties and longevity. The researchers assessed nearly 5,000 relationships and found that happily married individuals lived longer than unhappily married individuals.
Meanwhile, a study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine identified a correlation between being happily married and having healthy blood pressure. Unhappily married individuals fared the worst, with higher blood pressure than single people, suggesting that the quality of our relationships—not our marital status—dictates health status.
At the same time, a third study published in Heart noted an association between being married and a reduced lower risk for cardiovascular disease, suggesting that the love and support built into long-term relationships promote better health outcomes.
How To Increase The Love In Your Own Life
Feeling low on the warm fuzzies? These three expert-approved tips can help you ramp up the quality and quantity of love in your own life, allowing you to reap the associated health benefits, too.
1. Conduct a love audit
First, start by reminding yourself that you already are loved. Make a list of all the instances and types of love you experience in your life on the day-to-day, from parental love to sexual love to sibling love. “Use this list to remind yourself that you experience love already,” suggests Grassi.
Continue this practice with five minutes of gratitude journaling, being sure to name the people who showed you care and respect recently. “This process helps evoke positive emotions and puts us in a place of abundance,” Grassi says. When we seek love from others from a place of abundance (rather than from a place of deficit) we are more likely to foster healthy versions of love.
2. Make A “Joy List”
Either on paper or in your mind, list out activities that bring you pleasure. “Each week make a point to spend time enjoying at least one item on your Joy List,” says Grassi. “The more you show yourself love and by enjoy the things that make you happy, the more you start to radiate and others are naturally attracted to you,” he says. Basically, love yourself more and others will love you more, too. Talk about a win-win.
3. Nurture your friendships
No, friendships may not offer the sexual perks that some kinds of love provide. But according to Fisher, mutually loving and caring friendships can foster many of the same health benefits of other forms of love. That’s why if you’re feeling low on love, he recommends re-committing to your friendships, investing energy into acquaintances you’d like to turn into friendships, and saying ‘yes’ to social gatherings with your pals.